Nav: Home

Women ratchet themselves up the social ladder, 1 high heel at a time

May 04, 2016

Fashion seems to embrace two opposite goals--fitting in with the crowd and standing out from it. Now new research reveals that the choice to fit in or stand out depends on who exactly the crowd is - and the size of their high heels. That is, women adjust their fashion to look similar to the rich but different from the poor.

Kurt Gray, a co-author at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his colleagues investigated thousands of shoe purchases made by women who move to different cities, showing that women adopt the local trends when moving to wealthier cities but ignore them when moving to lower socioeconomic (SES) cities.

"In other words, women want to look like the rich girls, and different from the poor girls," said Gray, an assistant professor of psychology in UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

To examine trends of conformity and individuality, Gray and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and Yale University teamed up with a large-online fashion retailer. They examined five years of shoe purchases--16,236 in total--of 2007 women who moved between one of 180 U.S. cities. Because fashion choices are hard to quantify, they used a straightforward number: the size of high heels.

Their analyses revealed that heel sizes changed when women moved, but not uniformly. When women moved to higher SES zip codes such as New York City or Los Angeles, the heel size closely matched the heel size that other women in that zip code had bought--showing a desire for conformity. But when women moved to lower SES zip codes, the heel size closely matched the heel size of their own past purchase--showing a desire to keep their individuality.

The team of researchers, who included Jeff Galak, Nina Strohminger, Igor Elbert and Gray, label this phenomenon "trickle down conformity," because fashion preferences trickle down from the top but seldom up from the bottom. As Gray explained, "Walmart watches the styles on the runways in Milan, but Milan never watches the styles at Walmart."

The explanation for this lopsided conformity is the deep human urge for status. "From the beginning of time, people have thirsted for respect and social standing, and have aligned themselves with the powerful and distanced themselves from the powerless," said Gray. "So it makes sense that they do the same with heel sizes."

There is also reason to believe that this "aspirational fashion" is getting more prevalent. Inequality is increasing in America, and research reveals that the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more people want to look rich. Such aspirations fuel the fortunes of fashion sites that provide high-status goods for low prices.

This study examined only women, but there is no reason to believe it applies only to them. "Men do the same thing when they purchase clothes, electronics or cars," said Gray, "When you move from Wichita to LA, you look around and sell your Chevy for a BMW, but when you move from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas, you look around, and then just keep the BMW."

This research builds off the past work of Gray and Strohminger, which examined what color combinations make outfits the most fashionable. "We often think of fashion as something frivolous, but it's an industry worth $1.7 trillion annually, and clothing often helps define ourselves," said Gray.

With their current study, Gray and colleagues reveal that fashion industry isn't only about making money, but letting people look like they belong with money.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Related Fashion Articles:

FSU researchers find plus-size fashion models improve women's psychological health
FSU researchers Russell Clayton and Jessica Ridgway discover women pay more attention and experience improved psychological health when they view average and plus-size models in the media.
Fashion mannequins communicate 'dangerously thin' body ideals
New research from the University of Liverpool shows that the body size of mannequins used to advertise female fashion in the UK are too thin and may be promoting unrealistic body ideals.
Teaching case examines 'average is beautiful' doll as an entrepreneurial opportunity
Could an 'average is beautiful' doll appeal to children and represent a potential business opportunity?
Upcycling 'fast fashion' to reduce waste and pollution
The fashion industry and environmentalists are old foes, and the advent of 'fast fashion' has strained the relationship even more.
The fashion industry gains new tools to reduce its environmental load
The environmental impact of our clothing has now been mapped in the most comprehensive life cycle analysis performed to date.
Study addresses extreme thinness standards in fashion industry
In a recent study, female fashion models reported high levels of pressure to lose weight, which was associated with higher odds of engaging in unhealthy behaviors to control weight.
Ecologists don their research in an 'eco-fashion' show at #ESA2016
Ecological scientists are not known for elevated fashion sensibilities. Many take pride in a sartorial identity rooted in a field work chic of practical hats, cargo pants, and judicious applications of duct tape.
Hypoxia radiotracer produced automatically in dose-on-demand fashion
Access to sophisticated and non-invasive diagnostic techniques like Positron Emission Tomography is difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the majority of patients worldwide that are far from radiotracer manufacturing centers.
Women ratchet themselves up the social ladder, 1 high heel at a time
Fashion seems to embrace two opposite goals -- fitting in with the crowd and standing out from it.
Clothing made from tea byproduct could improve health of fashion industry
The fashion industry generates a lot of waste, which is why a team of Iowa State University researchers developed a new fiber that's 100 percent biodegradable.

Related Fashion Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Jumpstarting Creativity
Our greatest breakthroughs and triumphs have one thing in common: creativity. But how do you ignite it? And how do you rekindle it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on jumpstarting creativity. Guests include economist Tim Harford, producer Helen Marriage, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Engels, and behavioral scientist Marily Oppezzo.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".